If I could make it happen backwards
so you could start again I would,
beginning with you on the floor,
the doctor in slow motion
reversing from the ring, the screams
of the crowd pulled back in their throats,
your coach, arms outstretched, retreats
to the corner as men get down from chairs
and tables, and you rise again, so tall,
standing in that stillness in the seconds
before you fell, and the other girl, the fighter,
watch her arm move around and away
from your jaw, and your mother rises
from her knees, her hands still shaking,
as the second round unravels itself
and instead of moving forward,
as your little Irish coach told you to,
you move away, back into the corner,
where he takes your mouth guard out
as gently as if you were his own.
The water flies like magic from your mouth
and back into the bottle and the first round
is in reverse, your punches unrolling
to the start of the fight, when the sound
of the bell this time will stop you dancing
as you meet in the middle, where you come
and touch gloves and whisper good luck
and you dance to your corners again,
your eyes fixed on each other as the song
you chose to walk into sings itself back
who balanced like tightrope walkers,
who could run up the bracing
faster than you or I could climb
a ladder, who wore red shorts
and worked bare-chested,
who cut their safety vests in half,
a psalm for the scaffolders
and their vans, their steel
toe-capped boots, their coffee mugs,
a psalm for those who learnt
to put up a scaffold standing
on just one board, a psalm
for the scaffolder who could put
a six-inch nail in a piece of wood
with just his palm, a psalm
for those who don't like rules
or things taking too long, who now
mustn't go to work uncovered,
who mustn't cut their safety vests
or climb without ladders, who must
use three boards at all times,
a psalm for the scaffolders
who fall with a harness on,
who have ten minutes to be rescued,
a psalm for the scaffolder who fell
in a clear area, a tube giving way,
that long slow fall, a psalm for him,
who fell thirty feet and survived,
a psalm for the scaffolder
I come from people who swear without realising they're swearing.
I come from scaffolders and plasterers and shoemakers and carers,
the type of carers paid pence per minute to visit an old lady's house.
Some of my people have been inside a prison. Sometimes I tilt
towards them and see myself reflected back. If they were from
Yorkshire, which they're not, but if they were, they would have been
the ones on the pickets shouting scab and throwing bricks at policemen.
I come from a line of women who get married twice. I come from
a line of women who bring up children and men who go to work.
If I knew who my people were, in the time before women
were allowed to work, they were probably the women who were
working anyway. If I knew who my people were before women
got the vote, they would not have cared about the vote. There are
many arguments among my people. Nobody likes everybody.
In the time of slavery my people would have had them if they
were the type of people who could afford them, which they
probably weren't. In the time of casual racism, some of my people
would and will join in. Some of my people know everybody
who lives on their street. They are the type of people who will argue
with the teacher if their child has detention. The women
of my people are wolves and we talk to the moon in our sleep.
A curse on the children who tap the mouthpiece
with the heel of their hand to make a popping sound,
who drop the trumpet on the floor then laugh,
a darker curse on those who fall with a trumpet
in their hands and selfishly save themselves,
a curse on the boy who dropped a pencil
on the bell of his trombone to see if it did
what I said it would, a curse on the girl
who stuffed a pompom down her cornet
and then said it was her invisible friend who did it,
a curse on the class teacher who sits at the back
of the room and does her paperwork,
a curse on the teacher who says ‘I'm rubbish at music'
in a loud enough voice for the whole class to hear,
a curse on the father who coated his daughter's trumpet valves
with Vaseline because he thought it was the thing to do,
a curse on the boy who threw up in his baritone
as if it was his own personal bucket.
Let them be plagued with the urge to practice
every day without improvement, let them play
in concerts each weekend which involve marching
and outdoors and coldness, let their family be forced
to give up their Saturdays listening to bad music
in village halls or spend their Sundays at the bandstand,
them, one dog and the drunk who slept there the night before
taking up the one and only bench, Gods, let it rain.
And in that year my body was a pillar of smoke
and even his hands could not hold me.
And in that year my mind was an empty table
and he laid his thoughts down like dishes of plenty.
And in that year my heart was the old monument,
the folly, and no use could be found for it.
And in that year my tongue spoke the language
of insects and not even my father knew me.
And in that year I waited for the horses
but they only shifted their feet in the darkness.
And in that year I imagined a vain thing;
I believed that the world would come for me.
And in that year I gave up on all the things
I was promised and left myself to sadness.
And then that year lay down like a path
and I walked it, I walked it, I walk it.
Body, remember that night you pretended
it was a film, you had a soundtrack running
through your head, don't lie to me body,
you know what it is. You're keeping it from me,
the stretched white sheets of a bed,
the spinning round of it, the high whining sound
in the head. Body, you remember how it felt,
surely, surely. You're lying to me. Show me
how to recognise the glint in the eye of the dog,
the rabid dog. Remind me, O body, of the way
he moved when he drank, that dangerous silence.
Let me feel how I let my eyes drop, birds falling
from a sky, how my heart was a field, and there
was a dog, loose in the field, it was worrying
the sheep, they were running and then
they were still. O body, let me remember
what it was to have a field in my chest,
O body, let me recognise the dog.
Don't we all have a little Echo in us, our voices stolen,
only able to repeat what has already been said:
you made me do it he says and we call back do it, do it.
Wouldn't any of us, if pushed, sit on the riverbank
and comb snakes from our hair, or think that in our grief
we could become a sea bird, our outstretched bodies
like a cross nailed to the wind? Who amongst us
hasn't sat astride a man more bull than man
as he knelt in the dirt, for no good reason we can speak of?
There was a time when I was translated by violence,
there were times I prayed to be turned into a flower
or a tree, something he wouldn't recognise as me.
We learnt that we were born from stones, that the last
man and woman to survive the flood climbed from their raft
onto the shoulders of a mountain and looked across the water
which had swallowed everything.
For days there had been a sea but no shore, now as the water
curled back its lip and let go of the tops of trees
the man and woman followed, walking down the slope,
their feet touching the edges of the water,
their arms full of the bones of the earth, their hair long
and flowing to their waists. They cast stones behind them
and from the hand of the man a stone fell and grew into
another man and from the hand of the woman
a stone fell and grew into another woman and so we grew,
our eyes like flints and our mouths tasting of the earth.
We were born from stones and we were destined to live
like stones, warming ourselves in the sun,
cracking when the temperature fell, we said there was
something of the sea in us, but in this, like many other things
we lied, it was never water in our hearts, we carried stones
in our pockets, we carried them in our hands.
for Jan Glas
And I feel that in another life, I must have known you -
maybe we were brothers who loved or hated one another
or maybe we were neighbours destined to grow old together
or strangers who nod hello when passing in the street
or maybe one of us was a king, and the other in the army
and on a routine inspection our eyes just met
or maybe we were soldiers who would die for one another,
maybe we were the last two speakers of a minority language,
maybe I was a farm animal and you were a fair-haired farmhand,
maybe we ran away to America together, or maybe we
were miners and loved our yellow canaries, maybe you
were the canary and I felt your heart beating on my palm,
maybe you were a nurse and I was your favourite patient,
maybe we were buried on a hill, standing side by side.
And if you saw her hiding in the air ducts of Parliament
it was only to listen to the speeches.
And if she set fire to post boxes and burnt letters,
it was only certain envelopes she put pepper in.
And if she threw a rock or two, at one carriage
or another, they were, at least, wrapped in words:
rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.
And if, being imprisoned, her and a thousand like her
went on hunger strike, at least no one died -
the Cat and Mouse Act of 1913
sent the starving women out on licence,
and brought them back when they were well again.
And if an angry guard forced a hose inside her cell
and filled it with water, at least she didn't drown.
And if she hid in a cupboard in the House of Commons
the night of the Census it was only to claim it
as her official residence. And if her friends delivered
themselves as human letters to Downing Street,